What will Russia be after Vladimir Putin

escalation Russia: That's why Putin is increasing the stakes

On April 21, Vladimir Putin stepped in front of the microphone with his State of the Union address and the world listened. This is the role that the Russian President likes best. In the past weeks and months, the Kremlin ruler has done a lot to ensure that his country dominates the headlines and he justified his actions in his address. He warned the West against "crossing the red line". Russia itself decides where this line runs.

A huge military presence on the border with Ukraine revives fears of a major war. At the same time, the Russian and international public worries about the health of the imprisoned oppositionist Alexei Navalny, whose condition is apparently getting worse and worse. Reinforced by a hunger strike that has now lasted almost three weeks. Then there is Belarus, whose dictatorial ruling President Alexander Lukashenka is once again flirting with closer ties to Russia. Only recently the Russian secret service FSB claimed to have thwarted an assassination attempt on Lukashneka. Thereupon the Belarusian president promised an unspecified "decision of principle of his previous term of office". His visit to Moscow is expected on Thursday, the day after Putin's address to the Federation Assembly.

All of this seems as if the Russian President wants to present himself with all his might as the master of a country that cannot be pushed around and that wants to be treated on an equal footing. The recent rounds of sanctions from the US and Europe were registered in Moscow as hostile moves, as was Joe Biden's "murderer" quote about the Russian president.

There is a widespread opinion among Russia experts in the West that the latest Moscow escapades are an attempt to rise to the level of an unavoidable interlocutor for the USA and thus prevent further sanctions, for example against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Manfred Sapper, editor-in-chief of the magazine Eastern Europe, recently stated in an interview with the MDR that Putin is not only sending warning signals to Washington but also pursuing domestic political goals, such as rallying the population behind him and distracting them from the Navalny case.

Russia is putting pressure on Zelensky

There is no doubt that these attempts at explanation describe a long-standing Kremlin practice. But the actual reasons for the latest escalation become more complex on closer inspection. In particular, the new tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border seem surprising at first glance. Russia had been unhappy with the situation in the region for weeks and months. Last summer, Moscow and Kiev negotiated a ceasefire that remained stable for months. The Moscow propaganda stylized this as a kind of concession to Kiev, in the hope that Volodymyr Zelenskyj would implement the Minsk Agreement. There was no progress, instead the Ukrainian president tried to reduce the influence of Kremlin-friendly oligarchs in his own country, switched off several TV channels of Putin's friend Viktor Medvedchuk and publicly toied with joining NATO.

Although Moscow itself is responsible for the conflict in eastern Ukraine, it seemed like an affront to Putin. "Originally, the Kremlin had hoped that the reintegration of Donbass into the Ukraine as a region with special status would give it a veto over the foreign policy orientation of Ukraine," explains Russian political advisor Tatiana Stanowaja, who has worked for many years in influential Moscow think tanks. This was provided for by the Minsk Agreement. But now the hope for it has dried up. "Russia is paying less and less attention to the opinion of the West, and Putin is being peppered with information from those around him that Ukrainian nationalists would like to cause a bloodbath in Donbass," said Stanovaya. British Russia expert Mark Galoetti came to a similar conclusion in a recent analysis for Business New Europe magazine. With its heavy metal diplomacy, Moscow wants to demonstrate its willingness to escalate and warn the Kiev government against tough action against the separatists in the east, the expert said.

In its own cynical logic, the Kremlin feels duped by Zelenskyi's unwillingness to implement the Minsk Agreement despite the ceasefire. The massive military presence near the border with Ukraine is therefore less of a signal to the West than to Kiev itself, whose actions have recently been less and less in line with Moscow's interests.

Russia will not give up interests

In the Navalny case, too, last summer the Kremlin showed a high degree of disinterest in a possible reaction by the West to the poisoning of the most famous Kremlin critic. Instead, as with the Ukraine, the Kremlin relied on asserting its own interests. For Putin, this means removing the irreconcilable critic Navalny from the political arena, whether through an attack or, as now, through a long prison sentence with uncertain consequences for the opposition's health.

Belarus could soon become another playing field for the conflict between Russia and the West if Lukashenka actually takes steps, as recently indicated, to promote unification with Russia. After his bogus re-election last August, Lukashenka is not a possible interlocutor for either the EU or the USA. At the same time, both Washington and Brussels had warned Putin not to interfere in Belarusian affairs. For Moscow and Putin personally, however, a closer bond between the former Soviet republic and Russia has always been a long-cherished dream that, for a long time, had little chance of becoming a reality. Now, however, when Russia and Belarus have almost completely fallen out with the West, the time could be right for Putin. Although Putin did not specify this in his State of the Union address on April 21, the Kremlin chief criticized the West's "silence" on the "attempted coup" in Belarus.